Producer Yasutaka Nakata, who has worked with Hiroshima-based girl group Perfume since 2003, is possibly the most contentious figure when it comes to the question of what does and doesn’t count as “Shibuya-kei.” Few argue that his first handful of albums as capsule count as examples of the genre – especially with how High Collar Girl was seemingly designed to establish capsule as Pizzicato Five’s successors in lieu of the other band’s presence on the scene following their 2001 breakup – but from there on, things get tricky with capsule, and his production work for other performers is even more difficult. Shibuya-kei’s elder spokesman Momus claimed “Shibuya-kei haunts things like [Nakata-produced pop idol] Kyary Pamyu Pamyu,” and lists of Shibuya-kei performers often include at least one Nakata-produced act, but the issue is hardly cut-and-dried; join us as we seek to answer the question of whether or not Perfume should, in fact, be considered “Shibuya-kei.”
First things first, before we can consider the question of “is Perfume Shibuya-kei,” the question of “what is Shibuya-kei?” needs to be answered. Under the purist’s definition of the term, Shibuya-kei (literally “Shibuya style”) refers very explicitly to a scene that supposedly came out of Shibuya, Tokyo’s briefly-trendy shopping district (and home to the world’s busiest intersection) in the late 1980s and petered out by the time the 2000s came along. While this definition is appealing in its simplicity and straightforward nature, Shibuya-kei was never actually based in Shibuya on any particularly meaningful level. As Toshiya Sekine, organizer of “BOY MEETS GIRL” (the longest-running Shibuya-kei event in Japan), explains, the earliest Shibuya-kei event wasn’t in Shibuya at all, but rather in Shimokitazawa; which is located in the neighbouring Setagaya ward. The Trattoria studio where Cornelius and others recorded many of the genre’s most iconic albums was in Nakameguro rather than Shibuya, and (perhaps strangest of all) despite a number of songs extolling the virtues of Tokyo more generally, groups like Pizzicato Five never actually said much about the Shibuya special ward itself. The term, as Sekine and others have noted, really stuck more as a convenience than anything else – it was never particularly accurate to call the sound “Shibuya style,” even at the height of Shibuya’s trendiness, and yet there was something going on and “Shibuya-kei” just happened to be the term that fit.
However, even if one disregards the rather dubious location-based association, the purist’s association with a very particular sound from a specific time is harder to do away with. After all, what makes artists as sonically disparate as Buffalo Daughter, Pizzicato Five, Yukari Fresh, advantage Lucy, Original Love and Towa Tei all a part of the same musical genre, if not for the fact that they were all making worldly, retro-focused pop music in ’90s Japan? To discard the idea that Shibuya-kei simply refers to the scene rather than a distinct category of music requires one to try and find common elements across the work of some incredibly distinct performers; not an easy task, but not one without its rewards.
There are certain elements that come up frequently enough to be reasonably considered qualifiers of “Shibuya-kei” as a musical genre. Now, as, under the purist’s definition above, Perfume cannot possibly be Shibuya-kei, if we’re going to establish the group’s status as Shibuya-kei, we will have to do so in genre terms.
The Shibuya-kei musical style is not easily pigeonholed – this is a large part of its appeal – but this is not to say that there aren’t still factors that define it as a musical genre. The first of these, counter-intuitively, is that there is to be no genre dogma: Cornelius’s Point album followed up a heavy-metal instrumental with a cover of bossa nova standard “Brazil,” as one of the more striking examples, and Shibuya-kei has always been something of an amalgamation of whatever styles happened to strike the musician’s fancy at that particular point in time. With Shibuya-kei albums essentially serving as musical Isles of Misfit Toys, samples from diverse sources hanging out in an egalitarian musical utopia, the first identifiable trait one can determine is that Shibuya-kei artists don’t ever safely occupy any single preestablished musical genre, unless that genre is Shibuya-kei itself. The closest non-Japanese equivalents to Shibuya-kei can be found in the work of musicians like UNKLE and Beck – and, unsurprisingly, both UNKLE and Beck worked closely with Shibuya-kei artists throughout the ’90s.
The second, although admittedly somewhat more difficult to quantify, trait of Shibuya-kei is a necessary sense of craftsmanship as opposed to musicianship in the traditional sense. As songs are constructed out of ready-made elements (that Yasuharu Konishi of Pizzicato Five’s label is itself named “Readymade” was no coincidence), there is a necessary focus on how well the elements are combined. Anyone can slap a bunch of samples together and make a mashup, but it’s a good deal harder to make a Towa Tei song out of them; and, as is often the case with sample-based genres, the more obscure the sample source, the better (although that isn’t to say well-known sources are untouched – Hiroshi Fujiwara took from “Come Together” on “Getting Over You” and Flipper’s Guitar sampled “God Only Knows” multiple times on Doctor Head’s World Tower).
So, now that we’ve established what Shibuya-kei is – Japanese pop music constructed from readymade elements, with a preference for the obscure – it’s time to go about addressing the original question. So, is Perfume Shibuya-kei?
If we look to apply Shibuya-kei principle number one, first we have to establish if Perfume does, in fact, break with genre dogma. This is a difficult proposition, as the group is generally placed under the incredibly large, hazily-defined umbrella of “pop music” – a broad category that includes, more or less, the sum total of everything played on the radio aside from the jazz, classical and world-music stations. Stylistically, though, all Shibuya-kei is pop music on some level, so we can proceed from this point to try and identify whether or not the group fits neatly into any other previously-established niche.
If we disregard “pop” as the cop-out answer it most certainly is, the easiest answer to “what is Perfume’s genre?” would be that they’re synth-pop – which, contrary to what the name might seem to imply, does not actually just mean “pop music made with synthesizers.” Pioneered by acts like Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra (both major influences on Yasutaka Nakata, Cornelius and Towa Tei alike), synth-pop has a definite sound and aesthetic of its own, one which Nakata’s production for Perfume draws heavily from. The highly-processed vocals, synthesized instrumentation often at the expense of any “organic” music whatsoever, and sterile aesthetic – industrialization and mass production have long been fixations of synth-pop artists, with Perfume no exception – all suggest synth-pop as an easy home for Perfume, and, unlike many other Japanese pop acts, they’ve never so much as dipped their toes into “rock” territory.
They have, however, experimented outside of the realm of synth-pop, albeit in ways necessarily removed from the usual ’60s-’80s milieu that Shibuya-kei musicians usually prefer to draw from. On songs like “Hurly Burly” and “Spending All My Time” (embedded above), as two particularly striking examples, Nakata worked in some of the Latin American musical influences he had started to work with in his songs for Kyary Pamyu Pamyu (whose music Momus said one can find the “ghosts” of Shibuya-kei – everything coming full circle here), carrying on the cut-and-paste spirit of Shibuya-kei craftsmanship with panache. Although sometimes the music gets dragged down by the demands of advertising – an unfortunate side-effect of producing for a popular group in the 21st century – Yasutaka Nakata has, in his own way, been keeping the spirit of Shibuya-kei alive through his work with Perfume and others. So, yes, Perfume is Shibuya-kei, insofar as anything can be Shibuya-kei in the 21st century – by the purist’s definition they couldn’t possibly be, but for our purposes a positive answer suffices.